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Best films for a vicarious voyage
Sometimes, when winter lingers in your bones, you probably wish you could get out of Dodge. You long to fly to distant places for great, soul-stirring adventures and palate-pleasing meals bursting with foreign flavors. But how can you travel without plane tickets, reservations and a quantity of disposable income?
The answer is armchair travel with movies from your favorite video-rental store or website.
Get the refreshments suggested below ready, settle back on a heap of pillows and prepare to be whisked away to the landscape, cityscape, culture or historical period of your choice. You can drool, dream, learn, be outraged, think, laugh or be inspired as you travel with your eyes. Here is a list to get you started:
"Halfaouine: L'Enfant des Terrasses" (Child of the Terrasses) (1990). The film takes you to Tunis, capital of Tunisia in northern Africa, where a young boy is caught between the world of women and men. Get a rare look inside a hamam where the women bathe, and experience the exotic culture of a poor section of a fascinating city.
Refreshments: dates, couscous, olives, hummus.
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962): Some of the actors playing Arabs aren't Arabs at all, and it wasn't shot in Arabia (actually Morocco, Jordan and Spain, plus California), but the endless expanse of sand dunes, handsome young Peter O'Toole, exotic people and the blazing sun of the desert will make you long to become a nomad, ride a camel and meet amazing Arabs who rarely get a fair shake on the screen.
Refreshments: pita filled with falafel or tabbouleh drizzled with yogurt. To drink: hibiscus tea.
"The Syrian Bride" (2004): In the Golan Heights of Israel, at the Syrian border, the Druze community (a religious sect mostly in Syria and Lebanon) is caught between the two countries, and the drama is played out on a wedding day. The mountains, dusty streets, vistas over ancient towns, boxy architecture, Middle Eastern living rooms where the guests are propped up against cushions on seats that line the walls, blend of old and new (sheep and a video camera, cellphones and communal cooking) and brief looks inside the Druze world make this film an exotic voyage.
Refreshments: It's a wedding, so treat yourself to some honey-soaked Middle Eastern pastry.
"Walkabout" (1971): Two orphaned and lost kids follow an Aborigine through the achingly desolate Australian Outback. They encounter exotic fauna -- wallaby, kinkajou, echidna, monitor lizard and tree kangaroo. They also experience Aboriginal customs such as painting rocks and roasting animal guts to treat sunburn, plus they get to hunt against an ocher, orange and brown landscape under azure skies.
Refreshments: Toss some shrimp -- or, if you dare, something more exotic -- on the barbie.
"Cleopatra" (1963): This extravaganza, shot partly in Rome, not only includes Elizabeth Taylor's gazillion costume changes and her relationships with Caesar and Marc Antony against the backdrops of Alexandria, Egypt and the Italian capital, but also a lot of intelligence, research and faithfulness to Plutarch. Cynics may grouse, but for me, this film takes you there.
Refreshments: Have someone drop succulent grapes into your open mouth, then sip from a goblet of Italian wine.
"Buena Vista Social Club" (1999): Musician Ry Cooder seeks the living legends of Cuban music through the run-down, pulsing streets of Havana. Enter a world of music, motorcycles with sidecars, kids on skates, fabulous faces, dilapidated buildings and a woman with a cigar the size of a baseball bat.
Refreshments: a nice, plump, cholesterol-laden Cuban sandwich.
"Everything Is Illuminated" (2005): In the days of the czars, many Jews came to America from Ukraine, which they described as a living hell because of the pogroms and discrimination. But when a young man goes back to the old country, he encounters endless fields of sunflowers, farmland, goats, greenery, Soviet-era buildings and the tragic truth of what happened to his grandpa's village.
Refreshments: gefilte fish with horseradish, blintzes and chopped liver.
"Gorillas in the Mist" (1988): Filmed partly in Kenya and Rwanda, the story of Dian Fossey takes you away to steep slopes, dense vegetation, lush greenery and the mountain gorillas of central Africa. Fossey's bravery and determination helped save the gorgeous and sensitive animals from extinction. "Look around you," she says in the film. "This is as close to God as you get."
Refreshments: anything that can be eaten with your fingers.
"Genghis Blues" (1999): Anyone with a heart will love this documentary that tracks blind blues singer and composer Paul Peña to Tuva (in central Asia, north of Mongolia), where he meets legendary throat singers and joins in their competition. Peña's mastery of harmonic singing (multiple notes are sung at the same time) is deeply moving and remarkable. We accompany him through the snow-crested mountains, meadows, desert, dunes and rolling hills of Tuva, where the legacy of Genghis Khan lives on.
Refreshments: goat meat, yak butter and lamb, washed down with tea.
"Rapa Nui" (1994): Rapa Nui is the native name for Easter Island, in the remote Pacific. The film brings you the now-extinct, cutthroat Birdman competition, fabulous moai (ancestral monuments), cliffs, volcanic lakes and some of the worst dialogue imaginable.
Refreshments: No eating, just drinking; in this case, a very strong Pisco sour.
"March of the Penguins" (2005): As temperatures drop and days get shorter, the Emperor penguins march to their Antarctic birthplace to breed. Fabulous scenes of black-and-white penguins against blue-and-white vistas, plus vast expanses of ice and solitude. The film transports you through 100 mph winds, on underwater fishing expeditions with the penguins, through magical swirls of southern lights and blizzards.
Refreshments: Suck on ice cubes, flavored if desired. Or maybe some sushi.
"Noi Albinoi" (2003): On the subject of cold, this startling, strange film takes you to a remote fiord almost buried under snow in the middle of winter in Iceland. A chillingly ominous mountain looms over the village where an angst-ridden, precocious teen dreams of escaping the monotony and meaninglessness of his life by running away with the girl at the gas station.
Refreshment: The boy always orders a bottle of ale after he steals money from a slot machine. Try the former, not the latter.
"Into the West" (1992): Enter the world of Irish Travelers (also called tinkers and gypsies) and ancient legends. The film transports you from the dreary outskirts of Dublin to a world of rolling countryside, open vistas, the Cliffs of Moher and a magical white horse. The two child actors are amazing.
Refreshments: Guinness, of course, although it's never as good as it is in Ireland.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" (1994): It's magical realism, Irish style. Enter a rocky, mist-shrouded coastal world where boats are tarred, the sea is as important as any character, peat from a bog is used for heat, birds soar, seals swim, houses are thatched, and a young girl uncovers the secret of the Island of Seals.
Refreshments: a nice, warm, savory Irish stew.
"Cry Freedom" (1987): The story of martyred leader Steve Biko and his beleaguered but brave editor takes you back to a township near Cape Town, South Africa, during the years of apartheid. The film portrays the crowded, squalid conditions, dusty streets and courage of some of the poorest people in the country. Today, the poverty of the townships and settlements persists alongside prosperity, cultural dynamism, crime, exotic tribal life and great beauty.
Refreshments: brai (barbecue) and biltong (cured beef).
"Shortcut to Nirvana" (2004): A documentary about the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India, an enormous gathering of people that happens every 12 years and attracts up to 70 million participants. You can almost smell and taste the dust, incense, dirt, tents, camels, elephants, fortune-telling birds and the sacred Ganges River. And you get to experience the singing, dancing, joy and wise words of an array of gurus, including those who wrap their penises around sticks and sit on nails.
Refreshments: samosas, pappadum, dal and chicken tikka masala washed down with mango lassi.
"East/West" (1999): Go back to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, when exiles were invited home. When they arrived, they were plunged into a Stalinist hell. The story is gripping, with tender and wrenching relationships and views of the stultifying, claustrophobic, paranoid world of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the late '40s and '50s.
Refreshments: blini, pirogi and borscht, but don't eat too much.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005): Japan before, during and after World War II. A gorgeously shot exploration of bridges, streets, cherry trees in bloom, countryside, city life and a geisha school. Fabulous art design, overblown score and impenetrable accents dim but do not diminish the delicate beauty of Japan and the geishas.
"Hawaii's Last Queen" (PBS documentary, 1997): A little more than 100 years ago, Hawaii was an independent nation, and a woman named Liliuokalani, a brilliant poet, composer, traveler, sophisticate and natural-born leader, became its queen. The tragic story of how she was overthrown by the grandchildren of missionaries and removed by U.S. Marines and how Hawaii was illegally annexed to America is heart-breaking and horrific. Besides the pounding surf and dramatic coastal views, the film features photos of old Hawaii, with dancing, celebrations, native dress, sugar plantations, Chinese and Japanese planters, early railroads and the coronation of Liliuokalani.
Refreshments: Dig a pit in your backyard and roast a pig. Leis are optional.
"Meetings With Remarkable Men" (1979): Peter Brook engages the head but not always the heart in this story of G.I. Gurdjieff's spiritual quest through Afghanistan, Egypt and Bukhara. See dry, mountainous terrain, souks (markets), adobe walls, crumbling stone, goat carts, ethnic dress, pyramids, a sandstorm, a mosque for dervishes, and forests and streams. Meet men who make the hills vibrate through music, a mystic teaching under a tree and choreography inspired by Gurdjieff.
Refreshments: None. You should fast.
"Whale Rider" (2002): A brilliant young female lead, a crusty grandfather, a legend, an engaging story and the inside world of the Maori in New Zealand. The ocean and the graceful whales are leading characters. Today, if you go to the Gisborne area, you can drive to the film's location, visit a Maori meeting hall with carved sculptures of the ancestors, walk to the beach and even see the fiberglass whales that repose on the turf.
Refreshments: New Zealand wines and cheeses.
"Artemisia" (1997): In 17th century Italy, a young painter was the first of her gender to receive a commission or be accepted into the Florence Academy of Art. Her story is sensuous and sad, and it is filmed against a painterly backdrop of swirling greens and browns in the Italian countryside, with a gray sea hugging the shore. Makes you want to run there, with an easel.
Refreshments: any fruit with a phallic or womb-like shape.
"I Have Found It" (2000): This southern Indian musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes, ears, heart and soul. The visual extravaganza is so fresh, colorful, surprising, sexy and well-acted that it elevates Bollywood -- or at least Tamil films -- to a new level. Get ready for a romantic tear-jerker that will take you from a rural village to the congested city of Madras, stopping at weddings, temples, flower-infused festivals, movie sets and homes along the way.
Refreshments: an aromatic and spicy curry, and expect to cry into it by the end of the movie.
"Baran" (2001): What more improbable location for a love story can there be than a construction site in Tehran? Within 15 minutes, the raw honesty and originality of this film surfaces. It's the story of Afghan refugees who work illegally in Iran and how a Kurd first torments, then falls in love with an Afghan girl disguised as a boy. Finally, he sacrifices everything for her and is spiritually elevated by it, as we, the observers, are ennobled by witnessing it.
An unusual insider's look at Afghan and Kurd culture and the adobe houses and simple, poor life in Iranian villages.
Refreshments: Persian delicacies such as zereshk polo (a rice dish made with barberries) and bademjan (eggplant stew).
Other favorites: "An American in Paris" (1951); "Shipping News" (2001, Newfoundland); "Orfeu Negro" (Black Orpheus) (1959, Brazil); "The African Queen" (1951, Congo); "Local Hero" (1983, Scotland); "Out of Africa" (1985, Kenya); "Zorba the Greek" (1964, Crete); "The Field" (1990, Ireland); Fellini's "Roma" (1972); and "Lost in Translation" (2003, Japan).